The Fish-Abled Foundation organizes monthly social outings for people with mental and physical disabilities, in addition to other special events. (Fish-Abled Foundation photos)

A Community for People of All Abilities

The Fish-Abled organization gives people with mental and physical disabilities the chance to participate in monthly social events. Learn more about this faith-based nonprofit organization and find out how you can lend a helping hand.

The Fish-Abled Foundation organizes monthly social outings for people with mental and physical disabilities, in addition to other special events. (Fish-Abled Foundation photos)
The Fish-Abled Foundation organizes monthly social outings for people with mental and physical disabilities, in addition to other special events. (Fish-Abled Foundation photos)

So much good has resulted from one man deciding to “shore up” his life.

Eric Fishe, the founder of the Fish-Abled Foundation, a local faith-based nonprofit, organizes monthly social outings for people with mental and physical disabilities. As a driver for Rockford Paratransit for 19 years, Fishe noticed that most of his passengers were only attending doctor appointments. The simple social events that most of us take for granted, like a dinner out, a baseball game or a day spent fishing, eluded them.

Rockford Paratransit serves the needs of customers who, because of a disability, are unable to use Rockford Mass Transit District’s fixed route service. They also meet the criteria established by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Fishe was raised in the church but “drifted away” and for about 10 years was focused on himself and his role in a heavy metal rock band. He was obstinate about his way of life and made one excuse after another. When a female passenger regularly invited him to go to her church, he declined.

But she didn’t give up.

She challenged him about his faith life, his belief in God, his purpose on earth, and where he was headed – all questions he had been asking himself, but didn’t dig deep enough for answers. Finally, he accepted her invitation and went to church, but this time he found something that kept him coming back for more.

“She was telling me about God and His goodness and how my life on earth had a purpose,” Fishe says. “I was having a lot of troubles at the time and ran into a lot of wicked opposition and felt the negativity in my life. Then, this woman whom I call my ‘spiritual mentor’ had faith in me, prayed for me, encouraged me with God’s words and my life was changed. I quit going to bars, left the band, and started going to church every Sunday. Eventually, my wife and kids joined me.”

After his conversion, Fishe turned his attention to his Paratransit riders in a different way, thinking how he could bring some fun and meaning into their lives between doctor appointments.

He asked one man, whom he had known a long time, to go with him on a Mississippi River fishing trip. The 40-year-old blind man hadn’t been fishing since he lost his sight when he was only 16 years old.

“We were catching fish like there was no tomorrow,” Fishe recalls. “He was so ecstatic and having the time of his life. I knew I had to do more outings with him and others. So, I started reaching out.”

That experience led to naming the organization Fish-Abled – a combination of that first outing and working with people with disabilities. However, Paratransit passengers saw the name meaning something else. One woman described Fishe as a “fisher of men” because “God is able.”

Fishe prefers that interpretation, and his drive to help others has only grown.

The first official outing was a picnic in June 2012 with about 25 people in attendance. Last year’s picnic drew more than 150 participants who enjoyed eating burgers and brats, listening to live music and taking part in wheelchair races, Bingo, and other games and contests.

There have also been trips to apple orchards, Chicago Cubs games, the Shedd Aquarium, Medieval Times, IceHogs games, the Festival of Lights, an annual Super Bowl Party at IBEW Hall, Katie’s Cup, concerts and other outings. An annual Thanksgiving banquet is held at Milestone Industries and a bowling event held at Park Lanes is the biggest fundraiser each year.

Upcoming events are listed in a quarterly newsletter that goes out to about 300 people. To reserve a Paratransit ride to any event, call the Fish-Abled Foundation at (815) 494-4998 by the first of each month.

People’s hearts go out to Fish-Abled because the organization’s work means so much to so many.

“A lot of these people are sick and have a lot of problems going on in their lives,” Fishe says. “Their physical health has taken a turn for the worse, and many times they are spending their last days with us, just wanting to be a part of life and share the joy that comes from being with others.”

Fishe recalls a blind man whose wife had left him when he became disabled. He learned about the organization and attended one of the first fundraisers that just happened to be on his birthday. The man hadn’t celebrated a birthday in years, but on that day 200 people he didn’t know sang “Happy Birthday” to him. It was his last birthday.

Yolanda Nelson, 47, is one of those who benefits from the ministry. She moved from Chicago to Rockford in 2003. An eye condition caused by high blood pressure left her legally blind in 2005.

Nelson met Fishe on Paratransit rides and says Fish-Abled has helped her get more acquainted with Rockford and the people who live here. She’s made many new friends.

“Eric is an angel sent by God,” she says. “He has the biggest heart, and only God can do that for an individual. I wasn’t always disabled, so going to these events makes me feel not so alone and helps me see how others cope with their disabilities. Some people let a disability take over their life. Others re-invent the wheel.”

The most attractive part of the organization is that it is God-based, she says, adding that her disability has enhanced her relationship with the Lord.

“I used to think only about myself and what I wanted to do, not about what God wanted me to do,” she adds. “Like the Apostle Paul, I needed a lesson in humility. My disability has humbled me and I am more proud of what I have been able to do with my disability than what I was doing with my life when I could see. God was in my life, but not at the forefront. He was always on the back burner, but not anymore.”

A core group of about 30 volunteers is always supplemented by others who just show up at the various events to help in whatever way they can, Fishe says. Those wanting to volunteer can call the organization.

Volunteers serve food, take orders, unload buses, help with wheelchairs and walkers, get people signed in and seated at events, and help with personal needs.

Ashley Minnick is one of those volunteers. She learned about Fish-Abled through a friend of a friend who was looking for people to help at one of the events. That was three years ago, and she soon was on the board of directors. Six months ago she became the organization’s financial manager.

“I was looking to get involved in something outside of work, and when I signed up as a volunteer, I didn’t know what to expect but it was great to work with all the other volunteers, and those in attendance were so appreciative I wanted to volunteer again and again,” she says.

“This experience has really changed my life. I’m so happy to see the organization growing and to witness what progress we have made and I’m glad to be a part of it,” she adds.

Fishe refers to all people involved with the organization as “extended family,” and says most people refer to him and his wife, Jenny, as “Mom and Dad.” The couple’s two teenage children, Andrew and Abby, also help out at events and recruit volunteers.

“One thing I like to stress is that when you step out in faith, the bases are covered,” he says.